MENTORING RESOURCES: How to Start a Great Conversation – The 7 Best Tips

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By Maralee McKee, Manners Mentor

Lots of us can sing or hum a line or two from the theme song to the classic 80’s sitcom Cheers. It was set in a Boston bar that was a second home to the regulars because it was a place “where everybody knows your name.”

The world spins faster now on its worldwide internet axis than it did in the 80’s. We “know” hundreds or thousands of more people through social media than the average person knew in the pre-social-media 80’s. But since we and our purely social-media friends probably wouldn’t recognize each other if we bumped into each other on the sidewalk, we don’t really know them.

In fact, internet time is taking time away from in-person relationships to the point that we actually know fewer people in the flesh than the average 30-something-year-old knew back when Cheers was the number-one sitcom.

Yet what hasn’t changed a bit is that we all still long to be known. We want to be smiled at, called by name, and engage in real conversation. We’ll take a real handshake or hug over an emoji handshake or hug any day.

The Benefits of Being Able to Know How to Start a Great Conversation

All relationships begin with Hello, progress to a conversation, and from there either end or blossom into future conversations and flow into whatever relationship they’re meant to become.

People who know how to start great conversations, and continue them, are valued because they draw people, and the opportunities those people offer, to themselves, and can also connect the many people they know and hatch new relationships for others.

There are some basics to learn and become comfortable with in regards to starting great conversations. But once you know the basics, even if you’re an introvert like me, knowing how to start a great conversation is little more than knowing a formula with blanks to fill in.

And, no, making this into a formula makes it no less authentic. It makes it predictable. And what we can predict, we can better handle. And when we can better handle things, we stop worrying about them and start enjoying them, and then it’s completely authentic.

It’s that simple, and that wonderful. Being able to make a real connection and being the cool breeze in the hot mess of someone’s day is a gift everyone accepts with gratitude and even a little awe.

So how do you become someone who knows how to start a great conversation? All of  Some of my best tips are below! I can’t give them all to you at once. I don’t want you to leave and not come back. 

The Number 1 Thing Great Conversationalists Do

This might seem counterintuitive — a lot of etiquette rules are — but all great conversationalists have one overriding trait in common: they don’t talk much. In every conversation, they try to keep the ratio at 2:1 — listening twice as much as they speak.

Even if they’re unaware of why they do it, the reason is that they know everyone has a favorite subject, and that subject is the same for everyone.

What’s the subject?


Yep, if you can get someone to share about themselves, far from finding you quiet or boring, they’ll come away from the conversation thinking of you as interested, interesting, gracious, kind, and well-versed on a wide range of great topics. And that’s all because you listened to them and asked questions concerning what they like to talk about.

Without a doubt, the best way to start a great conversation and to keep it going is to ask about the other person(s) and to keep asking. However, proceed with some caution here, because there are surprising things you should ask and things you shouldn’t ask. These two posts deal with conversations at holiday parties, but the principles apply to conversations no matter where they occur. Check out Great Party Conversation and What Never to Ask at a Party

The Top 7 Tips for How to Start a Great Conversation

1. Send body language signals that you’re happy to talk with people. Our body language speaks for us before we even say our first words and throughout our conversations. Here are the body language basics you’ll want to use in all your conversations.

A.) Whenever possible, stand up ASAP. When you stand up, you’re literally rising to the occasion of talking to people. Standing sends a clear signal that you were doing one thing and now you’re changing to give them your attention. That’s a gift everyone appreciates.

B.) Make eye contact and smile. Show others that you have good intentions by looking them in the eyes and maintaining eye contact. If your eyes dart, looking for someone else, or you glance at your smartphone, it’s a clear signal that those you’re conversing with don’t have your full attention.

Whenever others don’t have your full attention, they have no idea how much of it you want to give them. The natural tendency is to assume it’s zero.

As for your smile, it’s your non-verbal invitation for them to approach you because it signals that you’re happy to engage with them. Smile warmly. The more the world sees your pearly whites, the more they perceive you as confident, secure, gracious, kind, fun and likable.

C.) Extend your right hand to shake. Your handshake is your personal olive branch. Always be quick to extend it. (Some etiquette rules have changed. To make sure you don’t accidentally seem out of sync, check out Ten Outdated Etiquette Rules You No Longer Want to Use.)

D.) Don’t lean against anything. It causes you to look like you’re about to be put to sleep by the other person and need help standing upright. It also subconsciously signals that you’re trying to back away and put as much distance as possible between the two of you.

E.) Keep your hands by your side and out of your pockets. Hidden hands make people wonder what else you’re hiding, and they make you look fidgety as if you’re in a rush to end the conversation.

F.) Use body language to encourage them to continue talking. Throughout your conversations with others, give them the green light to continue. You do this by smiling, nodding your head, and mirroring their facial expressions. For example, if they’re speaking of something happy, you’d want to smile. If they’re speaking of a problem that’s troubling them, your demeanor would be serious.

Now that our body language is on autopilot for welcoming, the next six etiquettes are all about what to say.

2. Introduce yourself so that you’re both on a first-name basis. Sometimes, first sentences come easily, and sometimes they don’t. Either way, introduce yourself early in the conversation. If you start talking and two or three minutes into the conversation you realize you don’t know the other person’s name, it’s time to pause for introductions. But “interrupt yourself,” not those you’re talking to (in other words, wait until you’re speaking to begin the introduction): “…..We haven’t been introduced! I’m Regina Harvey.” At this point, extend your hand to shake.

The other person(s) should instinctively respond with their name. If they don’t (you’ll be surprised by how often they don’t!), simply say, “Please tell me your name.” Once they share their name with you, make sure to use it often in the conversation, starting with this: “It’s nice to meet you, Patricia!” You then can carry on the conversation from right where you “interrupted yourself.”

Saying others’ names in conversations not only will help you remember them but also will help you build a bond with them. Science backs up the fact that we all have a favorite word. The word is our name. The more you use others’ names, without going overboard, the more they feel like you’re interested in them.

Grace note: It’s best to give our first and last names because there is more than one Steve, Nancy, Dave, Beth, Rory, Ava, and just about every other name. Plus, we sound more forthcoming when we do. However, safety ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS trumps etiquette. Consider your location and situation. If you aren’t certain that it’s safe to share your full name with another person, use your first name only. If even that makes you uncomfortable, use your middle name (or a made-up one). Better yet, leave the place, because if you don’t feel safe with the people around you, you don’t belong there.

3. Search for a “Me too!” moment. In general, we prefer the company of others who share commonalities with us. We seek out our own.

To have a great conversation, you need to bounce around topics until one of you says something that causes the other person’s eyes to light up as they say, “Me too!” Once this happens, you’ve found conversation gold — a commonality. Keep digging in the same gold mine, because that’s the first topic you’ll want to expand on.

From there, most conversations will take on a natural flow as one “Me too!” moment usually leads you to the next, and the next, and the next!

4. Find “Me too!” moments by asking questions. At the start of a conversation, you don’t want to ask about people’s marital status, or whether they have children, or what work they do. After you’ve shared a couple of “Me Too!” moments, you can ask more personal questions and find out whether you have even more in common.

Depending on where you are, ask questions that make sense for the location and the situation. Here are some examples of first questions that take into account what we’ve mentioned about starting conversations:

“Church is crowded today. Does it seem that way to you, or is it just me?”

“This caramelized brie is delicious! Amanda and Ty always have the most delicious food at their parties! What’s your favorite here (on the table) so far?”

“Today’s my first spin class ever. Do you have any helpful hints?”

“This is my first week on the job. I’m still meeting everyone and thought I’d introduce myself so we weren’t strangers. I’m Vonnie Jackson.”

Go to the web page to find the rest of Maralee’s tips!

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